Carol Burnett performed all the songs on her show without ever learning to read music
She drew “little squigglies” on the lyrics to remember the tune.
Image: The Everett Collection
One of the things that made The Carol Burnett Show so special was the varied assortment of topics it covered. It was a variety show, after all. But the sheer range of things that could all be in one episode — improvised moments, elaborate dance numbers, high concept sketches — was made possible by the amazing versatility of its namesake star.
Carol Burnett loves to sing, so music was a huge part of the show. No matter the sketch, she had the talent and stage presence of a professional singer. But in reality, Burnett never even learned to read music.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, she revealed how it all started. "I would sing, as a child, with my mother and my grandmother in the kitchen," she remembered.
Later, when Burnett was in college, a classmate asked her to sing "Adelaide’s Lament" from Guys and Dolls. She told the Archive, "I said, 'Sing alone? A solo?' and he said, 'Yeah, you don't have to sound good because in this song she has a cold.' So, I figured, oh, okay, I can do that."
That was the first time Burnett sung by herself onstage. Though nervous at first, she knew musical comedy was something she wanted to pursue. And that’s what she did! Her undeniable comedic skills plus her singing chops proved to be a winning combination.
Though it brought her great success, she never knew as much about music as it might seem.
"I still don’t know how to read music," Burnett confessed in the same interview. "On our show, I would get a script and I would have the lyrics on the page and then I would make little squigglies on everything." She continued, "I had my own hieroglyphics, that was my music. And I could read that very well."
Her own musical symbols, along with a great ear and natural talent, were enough. It's inspiring to know that even icons like Carol Burnett got where they are without being experts. All she needed was talent, drive and the creativity to make up her own language when she couldn’t read the one everyone else knew.